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Parents need to learn how to 'surf'

Published August 11. 2012 09:01AM

Picture a wise old yogi with a flowing white beard in a flowing white robe. A hermit who meditates high on a remote mountain and only reveals the secrets of the universe to truth seekers serious enough to make the ascent.

Now picture his knees bent and arms raised for balance, one foot forward, a wild look in his eyes. His bare feet on a surfboard and the surfboard atop the crest of a frothing wave.

I saw such an image on a poster more than 30 years ago. I'll never forget it, probably because the caption contained such good advice.

"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf."

It's the perfect mindset for those times when you meet great change and need to adapt, and if the following quotation is true, society and parents in particular needs to do some serious surfing. At the 2009 American Diabetes Association's annual meeting, Melinda Sothern, a professor of public health at Louisiana State University Heath Sciences Center, said, "We have a generation of children who are metabolically different. We think there's been a series of genetic mutations linked to environmental and lifestyle changes over the last few generations that have led to this."

While Sothern was specifically addressing the alarming increase in the last two decades of children with type 2 diabetes (once known as adult-onset diabetes), her observation may also help explain other recent increases in obesity, autism, and ADHD as well as why the harbingers of heart disease are now found in chubby kids as young as 3.

That was the chilling conclusion reached by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers in a study published online by the journal Pediatric in March of 2010. Elevated levels of C-reactive protein, a precursor of heart disease found in adults, were detected in obese children, some as young as 3.

A second precursor was observed in obese subjects as young as 6; a third, in those as young as 9. In response, Eliana Perrin, M.D., M.P.H., and the senior author of the study, said, "This study tells us that very young obese children already have more inflammation than children who are not obese, and that's very concerning. It may help motivate us as physicians and parents to take obesity at younger ages more seriously."

It definitely motivated researchers.

By October of 2010, the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress heard Dr. Kevin Harris of the B.C. Children's Hospital report that ultrasound results showed obese children had stiffer aortas than normal-weight children. Stiffness in the aorta is often associated with advanced age; in middle age, it often leads to heart disease and early death.

What made the stiffening of the aortas even more surprising is that it occurred while their children's cholesterol levels, a traditional way of assessing heart health, remained normal. And even though an increase in blood pressure was recorded in the obese children, it was slight.

A study presented at this year's annual Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology meeting had a conclusion similar to the B.C. Children's Hospital study. It found obese adolescents without the typical symptoms already had heart damage.

Researchers used 32 lean teens, 33 overweight ones, and 32 obese ones to determine this. After calculating body mass index, the researchers used echocardiograms to measure the heart.

The obese subjects' hearts already had impaired systolic and diastolic function and thicker walls signs of heart damage and forerunners of heart disease.

Not so long ago, pediatricians and parents alike considered "baby fat" innocuous even when it remained with the child until puberty. These studies have shown that belief to be false.

Now being obese at an early age not only means you are far more likely to be obese as an adult, but it also means you're far more likely to have health-related problems at that time and even die young.

Kaiser Permanente researchers in 2010, for instance, estimated that being morbidly obese in childhood shortens life expectancy between 10 and 20 years.

So what are parents supposed to do to keep their kids from becoming obese and increasing the odds of eventually developing heart disease?

What the yogi on the long-ago poster learned to do.

Parents can not stop the metaphorical "waves" the frenetically fast pace to our days, the easy access to junk food, the enticing electronic gadgets that keep kids from working out and up well past bedtime but they can learn to surf.

What they can't do is one thing their parents and grandparents did. They can't let their kids hang on to baby fat.

If that means prohibiting junk food in your house, do it. If that means making healthy meals all weekend for something to heat quickly after work so you don't pick up fast food on the drive home, so be it.

If that means seeing your kids get more exercise, work out with them sometimes. If that means getting your kids more shut eye, shut off all computers and seize all cell phones an hour before bedtime.

If those changes sound serious, you're right. As serious as a heart attack.

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